Thuistezien 280 — 29.05.2021
‘My head is presented to my sight only to the extent of my nose end and the boundaries of my eye sockets. I can see my eyes in three mirrors, but they are the eyes of someone observing, and I have the utmost difficulty in catching my living glance when a mirror in the street unexpectedly reflects my image back at me. My body in the mirror never stops following my intentions like their shadow’ - Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception
Do we know for sure we have a head? When you point to something and you follow the direction of your finger, your hand is a thing indicating another thing. When you point to your lap it is the same story. Yet when you point to what is above your chest, the place where you’re looking out of, dropping conditioning and imagination, there is no present evidence to what is pointed towards. In his talk ‘Two Men of Distinction’ Tom Short speaks about the intentional character of perception and making distinctions and sense. Moreover, he argues that the intentionality implies that the source, us as subjects, consists of emptiness. In Buddhism, void (śūnyatā) is the primary mode of consciousness, ‘I’ or awareness. The spiritual practice then consists of finding this meditative state to perceive and exist most clearly and blissfully. The pointing experiment, as set out by British mystic and philosopher Douglas Harding, first simply shows how distinctions are made, through indications within the same conceptual category. In ‘Laws of Form’ by logician and mathematician George Spencer-Brown, upon which this interdisciplinary 2019 conference was based, this is called the ‘law of calling’. However, when pointing to where the head would be, phenomenologically something different happens. Rather than ruminating on ‘what it means’, the inward pointing finger can be viewed as an injunctive to distinguish that which is distinguishing. This is of a different conceptual category, since it is not making a distinction descriptively, but it is a creative act. It requires a conceptual transition of perception. Spencer-Brown would call this the ‘law of crossing’. As an observer, since he is distinguishing the space he occupies, he is also a mark.
Merleau-Ponty also describes this perceptual shift in the ‘double sensation’ of touching and being touched, when one finger touches the other and you can alternate your intentionality towards either the sense of that which is touching, or the sensation of the skin that is being touched and which we always carry with us. Short characterises Harding’s headless experience as a ‘bi-stable’ gestalt. Gestalt psychology is famous for its images that can be viewed in two ways, and as a complete form they are bi-stable. As we see each aspect of the gestalt, we visually oscillate between two states of attention: one that is cognitively more obvious and normative that utilises categories for practical importance, and one called by Harding as ‘the view in’ where emptiness is the frame of reference into which everything unfolds as a pre-reflective mode of consciousness. Usually we are not thinking in terms of the latter; how nothingness and contingency is at the core of distinction, identification and objectification. The self realises itself on grounds of nothingness, the head we cannot see yet still have a concept of, or more intimately: the back of our necks, one of the most vulnerable places of the body, as only visible to the partner sleeping next to us.
Short concludes that for both Harding and Spencer-Brown emptiness as an embodied experience is a cornerstone to their thinking, from which different appearances arise. In the discussion comparisons to even more philosophers, such as Martin Heidegger, are drawn where the same framework is present, even regarding our relating to objects that either show us their surface or not and still pose an absolute centrality to our being.
Tom Short has been a professor in physics, Principal Lecturer in IT and Director of Administrative IT for two universities, mainly focusing on systems thinking. He also developed an interest in Buddhism and was a Vísiting Buddhist Chaplain in UK prisons for 20+ years and in a university for 16 years, which is ongoing.
Text: Yael Keijzer